Thursday, July 7, 2016

One Thing Leads to Another (Redemption 10)

What makes an album work?  Songwriting, singing, playing, production, even album design all play an essential role in the success of an album as a (greater or lesser) work of art.  To that list, add one more critical element to the make-up of an album; sequencing.

What is sequencing?
Simply put; sequencing is the ordering of the songs on an album.  But, in practice, it is so much more. 

With consideration to the form, good sequencing insists upon different expressions.  What would be considered acceptable sequencing for a cd, with one long continuous run for the length of the album, might be too fragmented for two sides (much less FOUR sides) of vinyl.  Practically any Pink Floyd or Yes album (your listening mileage may vary depending on your tolerance) certainly works amazingly well on cd, even though they albums were sequenced for the two sides of vinyl, but both acts always considered the whole of the work, so the transition between sides is not distraction, in fact, even benefits from the form.  Even with power pop albums with barely a 30 minute runtime like the Ramones’ and Marshall Crenshaw’s debuts work better on cd because the compulsive rush of 2 to 3 minutes songs aren’t interrupted by a vinyl flip.

For an album like Kate Bush’s “Hounds of Love” with song cycles on each of the vinyl sides, it is almost better to have the constraints of vinyl, listening to only one side at a time to allow the distinctive approaches on each side to build, wave upon wave, to a crescendo before moving on to the next movement.  Listening to the sides consecutively robs the music of some of the emotional impact as the tones and approach are very different between the two sides.   As annoying as the vinyl flip might be, for some albums, especially where there is a significant shift within the contiguous work, a break is a useful sequencing tool. 
Another function of the form that relates to sequencing concerns the available space on the media.  For cds, that equates to about 80 minutes per disc.   For vinyl, available space ranges from 20 to 24 minutes per side for a 33 1/3 record, depending on pressing quality and vinyl weight.  Theoretically, a stream length is unlimited, and cassettes, rarely produced these days, but as mass produced back in the day, typically had a slightly larger capacity than vinyl.  However, the cd and vinyl forms typically bore the most influence on album sequencing.  These different media run lengths potentially impact a host of sequencing parameters.  As cds increased in popularity (yes, this acutally happened), album run times increased and many more albums clocked in at over 50 minutes than didn’t, and plenty of acts made it their personal challenge to fill the cd to capacity, with the concurrent impact to sequencing.

More songs, longer songs, weird spoken bits, and perhaps even more stylistic diversity for all artists, (not just the acknowledged commercial and artistic geniuses) were just some of the sequencing parameters that were impacted by the advent of the cd. Statements became grander, chaff became more prevalent (especially spoken and musical intros and interludes and the dreaded “skit” tracks).  During vinyl times, even on albums, the 3 minute single was king, now it has become the album anomaly, and even the hit singles in their album form run to 5 minutes in far too many cases (requiring a hit single mix and edit).

The increased length of albums certainly had a detrimental impact to good sequencing; however, the increased run time of albums had some positive effects as well, allowing scope to expand, more ideas to be explored in more depth (longer musical suites and multiple longer running length songs) and more diversity of ideas allowing a broader expression of themes and ideas than could be contained within the limits of a 44 minutes vinyl album.  Even as vinyl makes its resurgence, it appears that the monkey is permanently out of the cage, and the sequencing of albums continues to follow the cd approach. 
So, for examples of good sequencing, those halcyon 60’s days of the Beatles and Stones certainly are a great place to start.  In fact, even the white albums with all its sound collages and experiments is a great example of using sequencing to brilliant effect (how else could a song like “Revolution 9” still resonate if not for how expertly placed it was in the context of that album?)  And as good as the songs on “Sgt. Pepper’s” are, it is really the sequencing of that album that makes it an all-time great, where even the run out groove adds to the brilliance of song cycle.  But good song sequencing didn’t stop in the sixties and it wasn’t only major artists who excelled at it.

The Fixx’s “Phantoms” album from 1984 has always been underappreciated, much like the band itself.  A much better than average new wave/rock band out of London, the Fixx had been together since the very late 70’s and started a run of hit albums in 1982 with the “Shuttered Room” release.  Cy Curnin’s distinctive vocals, Rupert Greenalls synth fills and Jamie West-Oram’s melodic guitar riffs were the trademarks of the band and although it would be hard to pigeonhole them to a particular “Fixx” sound, they certainly had a very strong band identity during the eighties.  A Fixx song was instantly identifiable.  “Phantoms” came out after the phenomenally successful “Reach the Beach” album from the year before and although it saw some respectable success on the album charts, neither the album, nor the singles released from it, fared as well as “Reach the Beach” nor even as well as the album after it, “Walkabout” containing one of the great rock singles in “Secret Separation.” 

At about 42 minutes spread out over 12 tracks, “Phantoms” is the quintessential length for an album in that pre-cd era, enough tracks to be more than a one hit pony, enough runtime to explore some ideas, but still tight enough to not suffer from cd era bloat. 
Album opener “Lose Face” is a great vision statement for Phantoms’ ever popular musical theme of human alienation in the face of constant change and modernization.  Bright, choppy new wave chords are undercut by a terse chorus and a sense of isolation haunting the lyrics, all completed in a perfect 3.30 (ok, 3.28 but why quibble).  Opening an album with a strong album cut, but by no means a potential single is a perfect bit of sequencing.  The should-have-been-a-minor-hit “Less Cities, More Moving People” with “more (great) chorus, less angular guitars” and a martial beat is a smooth musical segue.  Slight slower tempo, and more reserved, but the song still builds on the momentum of “Lose Face” and furthers the estrangement themes with an open hearted plea for more human contact.  Certainly the band is playing to their strengths here with melodic new wave pop and the sequencing is fairly straight forward.  Give the people what they want.  The next two tracks appear to follow suit, but actually begin to show a little more nuanced sequencing approach.  The short nervy minor hit “Sunshine in the Shade” and the sexy come on “Woman on a Train” are more aggressive with some great guitar hooks, catchy melodies and soaring choruses. What is particularly excellent from a sequencing standpoint here is the trainsition between “Sunshine” and “Woman.”  The fade out of “Sunshine” and then the rhythmic shuffle that starts “Woman” makes it hard to tell where one song ends and where the next song begins.  And that is even with a couple song gap between them.  It’s hard to imagine any other song other than “Woman” following “Sunshine.”

Although you can have great sequencing with a continuous set of same tempo songs, that’s asking a lot of the songwriters, so variation in pacing can be key to good sequencing.  “Wish” is a stunner, a beautiful song and a perfect change of tone and tempo for a band not particularly known for ballads.  It’s a nice variation in the dynamics of the opening salvo of upbeat songs, and although loneliness tinges the lyrics, it offers salvation through sacrifice.  It’s the longest song on the album and it is the beating heart of the entire work.

“Lost in Battle Overseas” is the one time the production fails the sequencing on this album.  As the last song on side one, it plays a bravado role, with fat synthesizer hooks, a slightly overdone guitar and a bit too big of a chorus.  “Lost” is the right song, and it is in the right place, but giving the song an arena ready production belies the themes of the album.  “Lost” is such a hopeless song, and it really wants to be something much more restrained.  It might have been a more effective side closer as a devastatingly haunted shell of a song.

“Question” which opens side two is a nicely played stylistic curveball.  Changing the key as well as utilizing a time signature outside of their typical work works within the rest of the “Phantoms” song sequence.  Although the songwriting is somewhat awkward with a melody that doesn’t quite work, and the recitation of letters is a bit problematic, it’s unlike anything on the album so far, furthers the questing theme of the album and traveled ground The Fixx rarely walked again.  Good sequencing should not be afraid to mix it up and, especially in the vinyl era, the second side of an album (much like b-sides of singles) always provided ample opportunity to take some chances.  “In Suspense” plays it more safe, but it does pick up the momentum of the album again.  It’s filler, but it’s competent, even slightly funky filler, and while it could be removed from the album with minimal impact to the feel of the album, makes the sequential step from “Question” to the haunting “Facing the Wind” much easier.  Who puts some of their best songs on the album on the back of the second side of the vinyl?  Apparently The Fixx does and it works.  Where a less thoughtfully (lazily) sequenced album might have front loaded all the best songs, “Phantoms” is very comfortable rewarding faithful listeners.    “Facing the Wind” is a lovely mid tempo ballad, with lots of ringing guitars,  a great melody line and a mid-song freakout thrown in just to make sure the listener is paying attention.  And then ten songs into the album, the hit is thrown in.  An extension of the theme of “Lose Face”, “Our We Ourselves” is paranoid, dubious and clunkily funky, but still firmly in the new wave zone.  It a fun little song and a shocking delight, hiding a hit so deep into the album.

 “I Will” is another stunner, gorgeously open and hopeful with a burbling baseline and too many guitar hooks to count (but count them I Will and love them all).  There’s a neat symmetry between the two sides here as “Wish” occupied the same location on the first side of the album and is nearly the equal as the album’s heart.

It is only at the album closer “Phantom Living” where it could be argued that The Fixx make their only real sequencing error. Much like the misstep with closing side one, The Fixx aren’t quite sure how to close down side two and the album as a whole.  While “Phantom Living” perfectly sums up the themes of “Phantoms” and is another nice stylistic curveball, it doesn’t really go anywhere and just fades off instead of actually saying anything.  It is a song similar to “Our We Ourselves” and should probably follow that song instead of closing the album.  Then the fade off from “Phantom Living” would sequence directly into the build-up of “I Will” serving as a much more satisfying conclusion musically and thematically to the album.

So what does the survey of Phantoms say about sequencing? 

Certainly song choice and production are hugely important to the success of a song sequence.  Sometimes the right song with the wrong production/arrangement makes a huge difference.  Sometimes the right song in the wrong place ruins everything.
Sequencing is not all about the right opening song and the right closing song but it’s close.  Openers and closers need not be the hits, but they need to establish artistic arc of the album, whatever that arc may be. 

Careful pacing of an album yields gold.  Cleverly spotting a ballad in a row of rockers spotlights the ballad and makes that first rocker after the ballad all that more impactful.  The change in tone can be illuminating, but it does require a couple songs to establish a pace or tone.  Going up tempo, down tempo, up tempo, down tempo from song to song is too schizophrenic and ultimately exhausting and not remotely rewarding, despite the brilliance of the individual songs. (Yes, I’m looking at you Belle and Sebastian and your Girls During Wartime).  And throwing in some changes in keys and time signatures are never a bad move.

Transitions between songs are hugely overlooked.  Lead in and lead outs can be as critical as the song itself.
Song dynamics, within the songs themselves and between adjacent songs are critical to a good album sequence create momentum from song to song.

Establishing some kind of artistic or narrative arc with the sequencing should not be overlooked. Storytelling is nice, but not essential and while the album doesn’t have to be “The Wall” or “The Crane Wife” type opuses, it should start somewhere and end up somewhere, even if the album is just going from home to the grocery store and back.
Particularly with historic vinyl song sequencing, symmetry between the two sides can create uniquely special moments and not only tie the two sides together, but ground the work as a whole.

Song length variation, although not a huge factor in “Phantoms” sequencing can still create tension and add interest within the song order.

Throwing a curveball or two into the song sequence is always a good idea.  A strike here and there won’t derail a strong album sequence and might just provide an unanticipated highlight.

Filler can be effective, as long as it adheres to the musical or conceptual theme, and isn’t godawful bad.
Concept albums have their places, but concepts can be confining.  Programming an album sequence thematically, even with a well-worn theme can be a good approach.  Multiple themes, either chained together individually , or woven together, are more challenging and not for the faint of heart listener.

Front loading the hits is lazy and boring, placing them where they best work in the song sequence is much more rewarding for the artist and the engaged listener. 
It’s a pity that “Phantoms” doesn’t get more love, then or now.   If it had included “Deeper and Deeper” from the “Streets of Fire” soundtrack, that might have increased the album’s commercial fortunes (certainly one of The Fixx’s more memorable tracks).  “Deeper and Deeper” could have easily slotted into the original album sequence right “Facing the Wind” and just before “Are We Ourselves.”  The difference in transition between “Facing” and “Deeper” compared to “Facing” and “Ourselves” would be minimal, and the long lead in to “Deeper” might even make the transition smoother.  And going from “Deeper” into “Ourselves” is practically seamless.  It might even be sequenced that way on a Fixx Greatest Hits collection or two.

The album was reissued by One Way Records with a bunch of bonus tracks (extended versions) at the end of the proper album sequence.  Clearly, extended versions (even the extended “Deeper and Deeper” which is great, btw) don’t belong anywhere within an album sequence. Song Sequencing is endlessly fascinating.  It is ridiculously fun, to reprogram classic albums, even adding era singles and lost b-sides and listening to the end result.  “The Joshua Tree” becomes a very different album with just a few judicious tweeks.

Sorry this took so long to post.  Hopefully it was worth the wait.  I was happy with the first draft I scribbled on notebook paper nearly a year ago, but I subsequently misplaced that before I ever got it typed.  Nothing I wrote about sequencing since (and I believe this is my third try since then), captured what I wanted to say.  This comes pretty close to saying what I meant to say. 

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